The Appearance of Things: Jocelyn Lee Dreams a World of Women — Edgar Allen Beem

One of the clichés of art appreciation is that a work of art must speak for itself, but that is only true to a point. The knowledge that we bring to a viewing greatly determines what the work of art says to us. The way an artist thinks about her work does not have to be controlling, but it is usually helpful and insightful. Just so a two hour conversation with Jocelyn Lee.

As a fine art photographer, art educator and proprietor of a not-for-profit gallery space, Jocelyn Lee has established herself as one of the most important photographers working in Maine in the 21st century. Though I had a chance to write about her body of work Portraits of Women and Girls briefly in Photo District News in 2014, I had been waiting for an opportunity to engage with the artist and her art in more depth and her major exhibition, The Appearance of Things, at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland (June 16-October 14) provided that opportunity for dialogue.

Jocelyn Lee at CMCA gallery talk with Edward Earle.

The Appearance of Things was a novel exhibition, or perhaps even a novel of an exhibition, featuring some 40 of Jocelyn Lee’s gorgeous chromogenic prints, saturated in color, full of images of flowers, fruit and females, all presented in constellations of prints hung against gallery walls as dark as the night sky and the unconscious mind. Though some of the images are drawn from Lee’s archive, the exhibition was not a retrospective, rather it was an edited selection of work old and new that amounted to a poetic, feminine narrative of the human life cycle, women and girls, flora and fruit in bud and bloom and decay.

“The show is not about individual identity but rather the shared material truth of all living things,” says Lee. “I tried to blend and overlap all the genres–portrait, still-life and landscape – to describe the continuum of the sensual world and our place, as human beings, in it. It’s about life cycles, the Buddhist concept of samsara: the unending cycles of birth, death and rebirth, that are almost like a dream. It is also about perception and our ability to know and make meaning of the world, based on our sensory apparatuses: eyes, skin, nose, ears, sense of touch and nervous system. We understand the world because we apprehend it through our senses. ”

Jocelyn Lee, from “The Appearance of Things”

The path to photography

I first saw a preview of The Appearance of Things at Speedwell Projects, Lee’s non-profit gallery in the Woodfords Corner section of Portland, and it was there that I got to sit down with her for a few hours in August.

Jocelyn Lee, 56, carries herself with the grace of an athlete though her dark-rimmed glasses can give her an academic look. Indeed, she is an artist, an athlete, an activist and an academic. Born in 1962 in Naples, Italy, where her father was employed at the time, she grew up in Larchmont, New York. She comes by her athleticism as a birthright, her father having been an All-American basketball player at Yale, one good enough to be drafted by the New York Knicks and to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. She comes by her activist streak by way of her mother, a pioneer in the hospice movement as well as in promoting the Equal Rights Amendment.

Lee came by her devotion to art, however, only by overcoming parental resistance to such an impractical calling. Though she first discovered and fell in love with photography at Mamaroneck High School, she was recruited to Colgate University as a diver. It didn’t take long, however, before Lee realized she was more interested in creating than in competing.

After dropping out of Colgate, Lee took a year off to redirect and focus on art making and dance. She took photography courses at the State University of New York in Purchase for a year before enrolling at Yale to study philosophy and studio art. As an undergraduate at Yale, she managed to sit in on graduate courses and crits, the Yale MFA program being one of the country’s premier photography programs.

“I sat in on all the graduate photography critiques, all the sculpture critiques and the painting critiques,” recalls Lee. “Yale gave me a chance to meet people who had made the decision to commit their life’s work to being an artist. I did not come from a family where this was even in our vocabulary.”

In addition to photography, Lee studied modern dance at Yale and, after graduation in 1986, she moved to New York City where she studied with pioneering choreographer Erick Hawkins, who danced with and was briefly married to Martha Graham.

“Being a dancer and a diver is about one’s body and space, and understanding living form,” says Lee. “My photography work is so sculptural and form-based that, although no one ever makes this connection, I think it is deeply rooted in my history with dance and diving.”

Lee had progressed to the point where she might have become a member of a dance company when she had an epiphany that propelled her in a different direction.

“A turning point for me was one day while I was walking the street of New York City,” she explains, “and it occurred to me that as a dancer I would be the tool for someone else’s creativity. As much as I loved the Hawkins’ technique as a dance form and practice, I didn’t love his choreography. It was a pivotal realization. I made the decision right then to go back to school for an MFA.”

Because she was working in New York as an assistant to British artist, writer and photographer John Coplans, a founding editor of Artforum, and because she had already experienced Yale, Lee enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College, which at the time was under the influence of post-modernism groupthink, the new orthodoxy that valued ideas over images, concept over craft.

“If Hunter gave me one thing,” says Lee, “it made me clear about what I wanted to do because I had to defend myself every day. I became very strong, but it was a fight.”

Initially, Lee went down a documentary path, pursuing a self directed project on teen-age parents in Boston and Texas, which led to being invited by Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles to photograph teenagers for the book The Youngest Parents (1997).

“I’m really interested in people and making psychological portraits,” says Lee, “but after doing the teen parents photographs I realized I didn’t want to do documentary photography. I was more interested in the poetic than a rigorously truth-based genre. I also felt very restricted and responsible to the subjective truth of the subject – the story they wanted to tell was not the story I wanted to tell.”

The road to Maine

Having taken courses at the Maine Photographic Workshop and having been a summer visitor to Maine, Lee jumped at the chance to teach at Maine College of Art after she graduated from Hunter in 1992. What began as a one-year sabbatical replacement position turned into a nine-year stint at MECA (1993-2001) after which she taught at Princeton University (2003-2012).

In Maine, the landscapes became Lee’s studio and she made the switch from black and white to color. The colors in some of Lee’s photographs are so visceral and rich that they seem to bleed color. And in a digital age, she is still married to film. Though she owns a Leica digital camera, she primarily shoots with a medium-format Mamiya RB 67 and a Mamiya 7, creating images that she outputs on a large Epson printer at Speedwell projects.

“I don’t like the way it [the Leica] represents the world,” says Lee of her preference for film. “The world that I capture with my camera has been consistent, because the lens on the world has been consistent.”

Lee values the deliberate, laborious technology of film over the instant gratification of digital imagery.

“The thing that struck me about photography at 17 was that it was a way for me to slow the world down so I could think about the nature of the world,” she says. “The world just went too fast for my sensibility.”

When I tell Jocelyn Lee that I signed many copies of my 1990 book Maine Art Now with the words, “The work of art is the search for meaning,” she gets goosebumps. The only way I understand art is as a form of personal and philosophical inquiry, every bit as rigorous and fact-finding as science”. And that is how Lee practices her art.

“This is really about me trying to make sense of the world” Lee says. “I tell my students that art is how you make meaning in the world. It is an investigation. It’s about what matters to you, not about making pretty pictures.”

The mother of two, Lee lives in Cape Elizabeth with her husband Brian Urquhart. While she is privileged to show and sell her photographs at Pace/McGill Gallery in New York City and Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam, she is well aware that the vast majority of fine artists struggle to find a venue and an audience. It was for that reason that she and her husband purchased the large building at 630 Forest Avenue in Portland which had previously housed a stained glass studio and turned it into Speedwell projects.

Since Speedwell projects opened in 2016, the gallery has presented exhibitions and events related to such challenging topics as mental illness, gay love, our throw-away society, empowering women, the abstract interface of music and art, and a cadre of poets speaking and reading in response to the 2017 presidential inaugural.

“We created Speedwell Projects so we could show the work of artists who are under-represented,” Lee explains. “First we thought we would focus on later career artists, but now we feature emerging artists as well as mature artists and artists who have experimental bodies of work. We want to do whatever we can to help artists get to the next step.”

Jocelyn Lee, from “The Appearance of Things”

The Appearance of Things

Jocelyn Lee’s The Appearance of Things was exhibited at Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London in April and May and was previewed at Speedwell projects before its four-month run at CMCA. A catalogue with an essay by Bill Roorbach is in the works.

The preponderance of female figures young and old and the sumptuousness of the floral still-life photographs, some created by Lee floating her wedding bouquets in a tub of water, make it easy to overlook the fact that there are no male figures in the exhibition. When men do appear in Lee’s photographs they tend to be older males, often pot-bellied and bearded, men of an age to have dropped the macho armor to allow themselves to be sensitive and vulnerable. Lee’s penchant for older men may owe a bit of a debt to John Coplans, who is famous for photographing his own body as a study in aging.

Jocelyn Lee belongs to a new wave of photographers, in particular women artists, who are redefining and challenging cultural norms about the lives of women. Her images of women and girls are part of a contemporary photo-dialogue that includes the work of artists such as Sally Mann, Katy Grannan, Justine Kurland and Catherine Opie. Lee’s photographs of Rubenesque women and older women subvert conventional notions of female beauty.

“I think they are beautiful in the deepest sense,” says Lee of the women she chooses to photograph. “If there is anything political in my work it is showing all body types, people who are at peace with their bodies and who have a real connection to the earth. It’s a radical acceptance of the human condition, a radical empathy.”

The male gaze is lustful, seeing the female body as a thing of sexual pleasure. The female gaze is more respectful, able to see the female body as sensual without reducing it to a sexual object.

The Appearance of Things then was a sensory experience of the feminine imagination, images untitled and unnumbered free floating in the dark space of Jocelyn Lee’s subconscious. Though she prescribed no sequence to the images, now one way of seeing, Lee herself knew where the exhibition beings and ends.

Jocelyn Lee, from “The Appearance of Things”

“It ends with an image of my mother with her eyes closed,” she says, referring to a photograph of her late mother sitting, eyes closed, against a simple landscape horizon, her body against the green earth, her head in the milky white sky, “almost as though she has dreamt this world.”

No, exactly as if she had dreamt this world.

(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer in Brunswick. He has been writing about the Maine art scene since 1978.)

The Privilege of Studio Visits by Edgar Allen Beem

For 40 years now (1978-2018), I have been writing about art in Maine. Over that time I have been privileged to visit several hundred artists in their studios. Not only did I learn most of what I know about contemporary art from studio visits, but I have come to regard an artist’s studio as a special kind of space, a place of creation, reflection, learning, expression, contemplation and spiritual renewal.

Artists’ studios are among the most human of places I know. I find myself feeling safe and relaxed in these industrious spaces the same way I do in churches, cemeteries, libraries, bookstores and museums. In all these places, one is in touch with generations of living. In a studio, one is also in touch with the immediate, the moment, even the moment before creation.

In the following paragraphs, I propose to reflect on a few of the artist studios that have made an impression on me and to consider some of the things I have learned there.

Studio as time travel

Alfred Chadbourn self-portrait at the easel in his Yarmouth studio

The first studio I visited regularly was Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn’s sky-lit and woodstove-heated space above his garage in Yarmouth. Up the wooden stairs and under the eaves was a little world away from suburbia, a cheerfully cluttered atelier where Chip painted and taught, read, smoked, dreamed and thought. In his “blue de travail” French worker’s jacket, Chip cut a rakish figure as he stood working at his easel, brushing buckets of color and Mediterranean light onto otherwise Maine landscapes.

With his handlebar mustache and European mien, Chip was Central Castings’ vision of an artist. His absorption of the history of art was such that I understood that when he was in his studio he was as much in the company of Bonnard and Vuillard as he was of the occasional visitor from the present.

That was the 1970s. I got this same sense of time travel in 1985 when I visited portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Gardner Cox in their respective studios. Portraiture was a conservative genre even then, so the sense of stepping into the past seemed fitting.

Claude Montgomery’s Georgetown studio was a rustic, smoky space. “Ash and burnt logs spill from the great stone hearth,” I wrote in a Maine Times group portrait of portrait painters. “The walls are cluttered with portraits of friends and family. Books mount to the ceiling a dizzying height away. North light skylight, ocean view picture window. A grand piano and a grand array of artistic impediments – a bouquet of brushes here, Winslow Homer’s old easel there – command the floor.” I’m sure I must have meant “implements” rather than “impediments.”

Gardner Cox was “a portrait artist’s dream.”

“Wavy white hair beneath a blue wool slouch hat, wild, bushy eyebrows above gold-rimmed glasses. Jaunty green bowtie, fire-engine red suspenders, yellow and black checked sports jacket with a red bandanna stuffed casually in the breast pocket. Brooks Brothers bohemian, Boston Brahmin deshabille, an artist and gentleman.”

The colorful Mr. Cox, a North Haven summer resident, painted in a line of descent from John Singer Sargent. His studio was a dingy, cluttered space in Boston’s Fenway Studios, a brick block of 48 studios that is “the oldest continuous artist building in the nation.”

“Thin, gray light streams through the towering windows that overlook the expressway. At either end of the big room stand commissions in progress – a portrait of Tufts University president Jean Mayer and a portrait of Harvard Law School professor Louis Loss. The portraits seem less in the Sargent society tradition than in the more expressionistic vein of Graham Sutherland, one of the last of the great English portraitists.”

Studio as real estate

Fenway Studios was built in 1905 to house artists displaced when another studio building burned. The venerable Copley Society and St. Botolph Club contributed to the civic effort to aid Boston artists. It is rare to find purpose-built art studios these days.

Artists are ever in need of ample and affordable space in which to work. I have often said, only half facetiously, that art in Maine is all about real estate. The first artists came looking for landscapes to paint. Subsequent generations came to escape the city summers and to find cheap places to live and work. As such, all manner of warehouse, office, factory, farm and educational buildings have been repurposed as studio space.

Charlie Hewitt in his Portland studio in the Bakery Studio

One of the most industrious studio buildings in Portland began life as the Calderwood Bakery on Pleasant St. First, Maine College of Art converted it to a printmaking studio and then artists Alison Hildreth and Katarina Weslien purchased it in 1996. Today, the Bakery Studios house the studios not only of Wooly Hildreth and Katarina Weslien, but also those of the Peregrine Press, White Dog Arts and Wolfe Editions, as well an individual artists such as Richard Wilson and Charlie Hewitt.

At one time it seemed to me that Charlie Hewitt had studios up and down the Eastern Seabord from Vinalhaven to Maryland. These days his primary work spaces are in the Bakery Studios in Portland and in a converted garage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Charlie, the most productive artist I know, creates paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, all featuring his distinctive expressionist vocabulary inspired by French-Canadian Catholic roots.

One of the things that amazes me about Charlie’s productivity is that he manages to create a large body of work while also managing his real estate holdings in New Jersey. When I first met Charlie in the 1980s, he was living and working in a third-floor loft on the Bowery in New York, derelicts asleep in the doorway, addicts shooting up in the park out back. By the time he left the city some 20 years later, his building housed rock stars and movie directors, and hipster moms had commandeered the park.

That’s the power artists have to transform undesirable neighborhoods, make them desirable and, thus, price themselves out of the market. As Soho became too expensive for all but blue chip artists, working artists like Charlie moved on to Chelsea, Brooklyn and Jersey City. Charlie’s investment in Jersey real estate not only provides some income, it also plays a strategic role in his art career.

“The work gets made in different places and assembles itself here for the New York market,” Charlie said in a phone call from Jersey City. “If I had just the studio in Maine, it would be difficult.”

Studio as mirror of the soul

Over the years I have been impressed by how an artist’s studio often mirrors his/her own persona. Whether Carlo Pittore’s converted chicken barn in Bowdoinham, Richard Estes’ immaculate ballroom studio in Northeast Harbor, Robert Indiana’s Odd Fellows Hall museum of self on Vinalhaven or Neil Welliver’s great barn in Lincolnville, it’s not just the art but the studio that reflects who an artist is.

Wally Warren’s Ripley home and studio is a local landmark

The wondrous home and studio of Wally Warren in rural Ripley, like Bernard “Blackie” Langlais’ art farm in Cushing back in the day, is a total expression of the artist. The yard of this roadside attraction is filled with whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. Inside the home studio there is Warren’s “Cities of Dreams,” miniature urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.

Eccentric and exuberant, Wally Warren’s world is a Central Maine landmark.

“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” says Wally Warren of his gaudy assemblages of debris. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is painter Grace DeGennaro’s fastidious studio in the loft of a post-and-beam barn attached to her Yarmouth home. The divine geometry of DeGennaro’s art is all about order, as is her studio. When I stopped by recently, Grace was in the midst of a work-in-progress series inspired by Platonic solids. Her paints were all laid out in chromatic order, surf clam shells for paint containers. I told her I hoped she hadn’t bother to clean up the studio just because I was coming for a visit.

Grace DeGennaro and friend in her Yarmouth studio

“Oh, no, it’s always like this,” Grace assured me. “I can’t work unless everything is in its place.”

Prior to moving into her barn studio five years ago, Grace worked in an even larger space in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River.

Grace DeGennaro’s art – and her studio – are all about order

“I loved working there, but I don’t miss it,” she said. “Working at home, I can climb up here any time of the day or night. My work is closer to me.”

Grace said the only thing she misses about not being in the mill is the sense of community, the sharing of resources and ideas that can take place when artists are housed in the same space.

Studio as the best place to see art

Fort Andross, also known locally as the Cabot Mill, is a 495,000 square foot brick mill complex that at various times manufactured textiles, shoes and brushes. Today, it is lively warren of offices, shops, restaurants and long, sterile hallways that lead to colorful artists’ studios. Among the artists working there most recently are Nick Benfey, John Bisbee, Brad Borthwick, Jim Creighton, John Coleman, Andrew Estey, Tom Flanagan, Cassie Jones, Richard Keen, Josh Mannahan, Elijah Ober, Tessa G. O’Brien, Bronwyn Sale, Emilie Stark-Mennig, Andrea Sulzer and Ian Trask.

Cassie Jones in her studio in the Fort Andross Mill Complex in Brunswick

Cassie Jones’ studio is a long, narrow space with high windows overlooking the Androscoggin. One wall is hung with dozens of recent paintings and constructions in which color, pattern and form seem to work out their own equilibrium. As a young mother of two, Cassie finds she must husband her time in the studio more carefully these days.

“I’m so lucky to get here two and a half days a week,” said Cassie. “It’s a great balance for me. I’m amazed how efficient I can be. I now do in two and a half days what I used to do in four.”

When I tracked down sculptor John Bisbee, he and two studio assistants were busy in the riverside basement hot shop bending his signature nails into a myriad of forms and letters, working feverishly to meet the deadline for his American Steel exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland this summer.   The most important thing I have learned from years of studio visits is that a studio is the best place to see art, right there where it’s created.

John Bisbee and assistants in the hot shop of his Brunswick studio

American Steel, Bisbee’s response to Trump’s America, was an exhibition-in-progress when I visited, some elements completed, others roughed out, the rest to come. As pieces were finished in the basement forge, they were carted in an industrial elevator to the cavernous space Bisbee maintains on an upper floor, a space he shares with several younger artists.

Bisbee’s studio is filled with the earlier work for which he is best known, elegant organic abstractions fashioned from welded nails. But American Steel is a different sort of beast, a kind of socio-political narrative of the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of a phony populism championed by a putative billionaire. The installation features realistic objects – a bathtub with oars, a pistol, a broom – combined with satirical text such as “This is such a witch hunt” and “This arrangement no longer works for us,” all made of nails.

American Steel will fill an entire gallery at CMCA. And when I asked John what having such an expansive studio space to work in meant to him, his terse answer was, “Everything.”

A few days later I got to see Kayla Mohammadi’s Caldbeck Gallery exhibition in its unedited form in the old Bristol schoolhouse where she maintains her Maine studio. Inspired by the title of the film “The Shape of Water,” the paintings take the artist’s distinctive pattern approach to bodies of water, abstracting the landscape through form and color.

Kayla Mohhamadi at work in her Maine studio, a former Bristol schoolhouse
Detail of crayons in Kayla Mohammadi’s studio

Kayla Mohammadi’s Boston studio is in the famed Fenway Studios, as is  that of her husband, painter John Walker. When Walker was chair of the graduate program in painting at Boston University, his studio was on the third floor of the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Blvd. Since retiring from BU, Walker has spent more and more of his time in the couple’s South Bristol home and has acquired a collection of local buildings – a school, a store, a warehouse, and the former hall of the Improved Order of Red Men – as studio, storage and display space.

John, who was at work on paintings for exhibitions in England when I visited, is very attuned to the special power of an artist’s studio. In fact, photographs of studios figured in his decision to become an artist in the first place.

John Walker’s studio in the former Improved Order of Red Men’s Hall in Bristol

“The thing that did it for me was seeing pictures of artists’ studios, of people working, artists like Pollack and DeKooning working in their studios, all that activity,” said John. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

John Walker agrees that the ideal place to see a painting is where it is created.

John Walker, former head of the painting department at Boston University) in his Maine studio

“I don’t like exhibitions,” he confided. “I feel sad for the pictures in those clean, neutral spaces. They look so lonely hanging there.”

John Walker’s advice to aspiring painters has always been simple and direct.

“You go away and paint some pictures no one has ever seen before,” he tells them, “and then the art world will find you.”

John Walker in his Maine a studio

The studio is central to the art making experience because it is where art is born and where it is most at home. For the artist, it is simultaneously a retreat from the world and the place where he/she engages it most intensely. It is a private place, a work space, a place of research, discovery and, for some, even worship. And that is why it has always seemed to me to be such a privilege to visit one, to get a preview of art-in-progress and of the place and process of creation.

(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance art writer and political columnist who lives in Brunswick.)

Humble Origins — How art can create identity

By Edgar Allen Beem

above: watercolor by Betty Beem

Our home is filled with fine and fun art, almost all of it created by friends and family. The art we live with has become an important part of my own identity and I trace this aesthetic definition of self back to my mother. Most of the art in our home is by artist friends, among them Susan Amons, Dozier Bell, Kathy Bradford, Alfred Chadbourn, Howard Clifford, Maury Colton, Matt Donahue, Charlie Hewitt, Alison Hildreth, Eric Hopkins, Frederick Lynch, William Manning, Mathew Pierce O’Donnell, Abby Shahn, Todd Watts and Mark Wethli. But the first things you see when you enter our house are the Twombly-esque scribblings all over the garage wall where I have invited our grandchildren to leave their marks and the big bold flowers I have slathered on the same wall with leftover house paint.

Betty Beem, watercolor

 

Easily overlooked in this cheerful graffiti is a small watercolor of an iris blossom that hangs on the little landing outside the door to the mudroom. Irises are my favorite flower. I kind of wish the artist hadn’t added the little blue butterfly that is virtually indistinguishable from the iris petals, but then you don’t criticize your mother.

 

 

My mother was the only artist I knew growing up. She was an enthusiastic amateur who studied and painted watercolors all her life.

Among my mother’s paintings hanging in our upstairs bedrooms are a sprig of blueberries, a still-life frieze of fruit, and my favorite, a flutter of white flowers, a sort of abstract floral fantasy. There are also a couple of my mother’s efforts in oil. The watercolors are often deft, but the oils – a cheerful pink conch shell and a rather Ryder-esque farmhouse landscape – show the effort involved.

Betty Beem

My mother came from humble origins. She was born Bertha Harrison in Bath in 1922, became Betty Gibson when she was adopted in 1926, and then Betty Beem when she married my father in 1948. All of her surnames were given to her by men, one she never really knew and two she loved very much. I’m not sure where my mother’s artistic interest came from. She studied early childhood education at Westbrook Junior College and Lesley College and taught nursery school as a young woman. All of my life she was a kitchen table painter and she took art classes wherever we lived.

When we lived in Groton, Massachusetts for a few years in the 1950s, my mother sent me to Saturday morning art classes at the Paint Bucket. Making clay pinch pots and paper mache animals was my first experience making art unless you count the elaborate battlefield drawings I made about the same time. It’s a boy thing I guess. So my exposure to art as a child was pretty much limited to calendars and her watercolors. On a couple of occasions, my maternal grandmother, a widow living alone on High St. in Portland, took me to the Portland Museum of Art, but all I remember about those visits were bands playing on the High St. steps under the Copper Beech and the smooth, cool deathly realism of Akers’ The Dead Pearl Diver at the foot of the circular stairs in the Sweat Galleries. I thus knew nothing at all about art until I got out of college in 1971. Then it took me a decade or more to understand that a true appreciation of art means unlearning the prejudices of art historical orthodoxy.

As a young man, just about the only work of art I owned was a gilt-framed reproduction of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic “Christina’s World.” I was a Maine boy and Christina was a Maine icon. I was so ignorant of the content of that painting and innocent of all the death, sex and violence in Wyeth World that I imagined Christina Olson as a lovely young farm girl sunbathing in the meadow. Who knew she was a crippled spinster dragging herself across the field? Apparently everyone but me.

Between about 1971 and 1978, I had something of an artistic awakening when my then-brother-in-law, a Jewish interior designer from New York, took it upon himself to educate me in fine art by exposing me to works of Leonard Baskin, Alfred Chadbourn and Ben Shahn. I started going to the few contemporary galleries there were in Maine and began looking at art in earnest, not as décor but as investigation, a search for meaning every bit as valuable as that of science or religion.

White Lillies, by DeWitt Hardy. Collection of the author.

By the time I started writing about art in Maine in 1978, I had somehow “learned” that my mother’s art was amateur stuff and that Wyeth’s art, while popular, famous and expensive, was considered reactionary and rear-guard by the art establishment, a romantic throwback no more a part of the ongoing 20th century artistic dialogue than my mother’s aqueous flora.

My function as a reporter and self-proclaimed art critic then, first for The Portland Independent and then for Maine Times, was to be judge, jury and executioner. It was my responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dross, the worthy from the rest. Never mind that I had no art education whatsoever, I had a good eye and a way with words. Art objects were open to interpretation and I was good at coming up with a plausible explanation. All art, I soon discovered, is a con job, in a good way of course. Perhaps confidence game is a better phrase. The artist, in collaboration with dealers, curators, and critics, must create confidence in collectors and the public that the useless objects s/he makes have value beyond utility, both intrinsic and extrinsic, critical and commercial.

I participated in this aesthetic conspiracy for a dozen years or more, merrily pronouncing this artist important, that artist not so, this work fine art, that applied, this piece a work of art, that a craft object, etc. Sort and dispose. It is not enough to know what you like, I reasoned. A viewer who could not distinguish between serious art and pretty pictures was as culturally impoverished as a reader who could not distinguish between great literature and chick lit, Romantic poetry and Harlequin Romances. The one was an act of engagement, the other an act of escapism.

Beem Family Interior

Of course, my idea of what constituted value in contemporary art was borrowed largely from New York and the slick art journals where a premium was placed on individuality and originality. Most, if not all of what I knew about the art enterprise I knew from talking to artists and observing them at work. Writing for publication gave me entrée to the studios of artists ranging from Neil Welliver, Alex Katz and Andrew Wyeth to Dozier Bell, Celeste Roberge and Abby Shahn.

I learned a great deal from talking to and observing dozens and dozens of artists in Maine, but it was an offhand remark by Abby Shahn that first threw a monkey wrench into the finely-tuned and well-oiled gears of my art critical machinery. I was visiting Abby at her home and studio in Solon, talking to her about her art and art in general while she transformed some frozen squash into one of best bowls of soup I ever ate, when I chanced to ask her opinion of an artist, perhaps Wyeth but definitely one problematic in terms of both content and style.  “Given a choice between bad art and no art,” said Abby, “I’ll take bad art.” That generous, open-minded comment made me start to question my whole judgmental approach to appreciating and writing about art. And once you get beyond seeing art through the distorted lens of quality, you start realizing all the other biases that operate on our perceptions of art, art history tending to be an exclusive Eurocentric male view.

Abby Shahn’s comment began a re-examination of my own elitist male prejudices about art that eventually led me to the realization that there really is no such thing as bad art.

I probably knew this a priori as a child, but it came as something of a revelation to the “sophisticate” I had become. On a moral scale of human activity from genocide at one end to sainthood at the other, all art making, whether that of children, amateurs, outsiders, fine artists or geniuses, is way up there at the divine end of the spectrum. It’s a good thing to do whether the art establishment or the art market values it or not.

My approach to writing about art has evolved such that I now attempt to see and accept all art for what it is and what I imagine it is trying to do. I endeavor to be the best audience an artist can have, someone who will look long enough to ask questions and think about what the artist is up to whether they are trying to save the world or just make it a little more beautiful. To the degree that I can help the average reader find ways to approach difficult art that is what I want to do as a writer. But you do have to know a little something about art history to understand why a rectangular block of rusty steel by Richard Serra or a compacted bale of tin cans by Adriane Herman, to name two of my favorite pieces of art in Maine, are important works of art. But that’s a story for another time.

My long-winded point here is that as I matured as a writer, I came to a renewed appreciation of my mother’s modest achievements as a watercolorist. Watercolor, except in the hands of a few painters such as Winslow Homer, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth, tends to be seen as a lesser medium than oil, acrylic, casein or tempera. Watercolors are humble things, a little powdered pigment mixed with water, the stuff of school children, illustrators and amateurs.

Watercolor was my mother’s medium. Her wet-on-wet still-life, landscape and floral paintings were only seen in the homes of her family and friends and once a year at the holiday art show at her church. Something about watercolor spoke to my mother and now she speaks to me through it.

The last two paintings we acquired – a lily by DeWitt Hardy and a pair of dark, brooding views of the apple tree in his New Brunswick backyard by Stephen Scott – are watercolors. It was not until a visitor saw the Hardy painting and asked if it were by my mother that it dawned on me that a lot of the appeal of the lily and the apple trees is that they are fluent in the fluid language my mother tried to speak.

Betty Beem

During the last two years of their lives my parents’ world was reduced to a shared room in a nursing home. Other than family photographs, they took precious little with them when they could no longer live in their own home, but one of the few things my mother took were her watercolors. As she approached 90 and eternity in the nursing home, my mother created an identity for herself beyond that of old lady, invalid and patient. She painted small watercolors for staff members and fellow patients, taking special requests and sharing her time and talent right to the very end. Painting gave her an identity. Betty Beem was an artist. I know that now, but I didn’t always.